Barcelona's new signing Arthur hitting the ground running, looking right at home
In theory, Barcelona have been back in training for over a week as the second year of Ernesto Valverde's tenure begins. In practice, though, you could argue they haven't been back at all. Of the 15 players who took part in the first session last Wednesday, five were returning from loan spells, two spent last season on the B team and only two, Sergi Roberto and Nelson Semedo, played regularly last term. The other six -- Jasper Cillessen, Lucas Digne, Andre Gomes, Denis Suarez, Paco Alcacer and Aleix Vidal -- could all leave this summer.
None of the players who took part in the World Cup have returned yet (they will do so gradually, dependent on how far they progressed in Russia) but two new signings have been incorporated into the sessions since day one: Arthur and Clement Lenglet.
Arthur's already making the most of his head start. With Andres Iniesta and Paulinho both gone and Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic still enjoying some time off after the World Cup, he has the perfect opportunity to earn an immediate starting spot in the side.
The 21-year-old midfielder, who signed this month for €31 million from Gremio, possesses, according to sporting director Eric Abidal, "Barca DNA." Previous midfield signings, such as Paulinho and Andre Gomes, have never had that expression used to describe them -- although that's not to say they've both been unsuccessful. Arthur, though, has already been compared to Iniesta and Xavi, two bastions of the Catalan club's renowned style.
"Valverde and the rest of his staff, who have now had the chance to see [Arthur] up close, are excited by his class, his refined technique and the speed with which he takes on instructions," the journalist Gabriel Sans wrote in Mundo Deportivo on Friday. "They're also impressed with his attitude and his desire to learn."
Arthur's first few days at the club's training base in Sant Joan Despi have been aided by the fact that he's surrounded by Portuguese speakers (Douglas, Marlon Santos, Semedo and Rafinha) but he's picking up Spanish as quickly as he seems to be adapting to what Valverde is looking or from him on the pitch.
On Monday, he will be part of the squad which flies to the United States to take part in the International Champions Cup. The La Liga champions will play Tottenham, Roma and AC Milan and Arthur has a golden chance to make his case for a place in the side.
With Iniesta in Japan, Paulinho back in China and Gomes, Rafinha and Denis Suarez's futures all uncertain, there's room for a midfield shakeup at the Camp Nou this summer and Arthur already appears to be in tune with exactly what is being demanded. That's why Barca fast-tracked a deal which was originally pencilled in for January.
Where he fits in and how much he plays will depend on any further transfer activity this summer and Valverde's tactics. Last season, the coach preferred a more compact 4-4-2 formation. In that scenario, Arthur would slot in just ahead of Busquets in the middle, with Philippe Coutinho wider on the left and Rakitic working on the right flank. In a 4-3-3, he would sit ahead of Busquets, alongside Rakitic, with Coutinho pushed into a more attacking role. Either way, given the current competition for places and Arthur's early comments since arriving in Spain, it looks like he could be the player tasked with adding control to Barca's midfield when the season kicks off next month.
"I enjoy how Barcelona play with the ball at their feet," he told Diario Sport this week. "At times the team needs you to control the play; other times, they need you to speed up the tempo, but the idea is to dominate and control the match."
Over the next few weeks, he will have the chance to turn those words into performances. No one expected him to be a regular for Gremio last season -- let alone lead them to Copa Libertadores glory -- but an injury to a teammate handed him an opening against Paraguayan side Guarani. By full-time, ESPN FC South American correspondent Tim Vickery explains, "he looked so utterly at home that by the final whistle it was hard to imagine a Gremio side without him."
Barca's World Cup-disrupted preseason may not be ideal preparation for the new campaign, but it could prove beneficial for Arthur. Starting with Tottenham in Los Angeles next weekend, his task is now to make it hard to imagine a Barca side without him.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.